[Cassons]

INTERVIEW: LEVI KITCHEN

3 weeks ago | Words: Eric Johnson | Photos: Feld Entertainment

Straight out of Washougal, Washington, a town of 17,039 inhabitants and named by a wild-eyed fur trader named Alexander Ross way back in 1811, Levi Kitchen grew up with nearby Washougal MX Park as something of a backyard while he cut his competitive teeth as an amateur racer. Now two years into his professional career and a member of Mitch Payton’s formidable Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki organisation, Kitchen is three rounds into the 2024 250SX West Supercross Championship. And it has gone well for kid straight out of the rolling hills and evergreen forests of America’s Most Scenic Raceway.

The third-place finisher at the season opener at Angel Stadium in Orange County, California, Kitchen soldiered on through the driving rain and flying mud of San Fran’s Oracle Park to come up short by an eyeblink margin of +0.913 seconds to place runner-up to Main Event winner, Jordan Smith. One week later, also in the rain and mud, this time at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, Kitchen stalked down race leader and was looking to make a pass when he tipped over and fell. Kitchen charged back to fifth at the finish line and is now a rock-solid second in the 250SX West points heading into what will be a sunlit Angel Stadium this approaching Saturday in Anaheim, California.

“I’m pretty satisfied with how it’s gone so far,” answered the friendly kid out of the Pacific Northwest while waiting out the rain this week. “I mean, last weekend felt like the one that got away a little bit for me. I don’t know, speed-wise and stuff, I felt like I was in a good spot to win. But the positives were… I guess you could say that I’m feeling really good on the bike and we’re still in a good spot points-wise. I mean I’m just eight points back from Jordan Smith. I’m happy and I’ve just got to keep plugging away. There’s a lot of racing left still. With that being said, though, it also feels like there’s not a ton of racing left from a championship standpoint. I just need to make some stuff happen quick in these next few weeks. I just kind of want to turn it around a little bit. I mean, I’m happy with two podiums to start off the season, but I need to get on a little bit of a roll here and try to click off some wins.

With the competition and the fierceness of it all running so very deep in the 2024 250SX West series, there really is no margin for error whatsoever. In fact, this writer spoke with Jo Shimoda about the hole the Japanese rider is in only three rounds into 2024. I also asked Kitchen to speak about the competitive landscape and no margin for error.

“No, there’s not a margin at all,” declared Kitchen. “You know, and I think like you said, Jo’s like 30-something points down now. I mean, statistically, he’s out of it. There’s absolutely no way now. With somebody like Jo, I could get second behind him the rest of the season and still get the championship. Jo’s off my list and Nate Thrasher is now also off my list. Those guys have great speed, but it’s between Jordan Smith and R.J. Hampshire now. Garrett Marchbanks is riding really well, too. But once you go down 25 points, which is pretty much a race win, it’s gonna be pretty tough to come back in the championship. So I’m not too worried about the others. I just need to keep doing my thing and see where that takes me.”

Of his Anaheim 1 third-place podium ride, Kitchen was quietly pleased.

“Yeah, it was it was alright for me. Nerves got to me really bad on race day. That was a little bit of a bummer, but you know, I think going into this coming weekend at Angel Stadium, I think the nerves will be pretty much gone. Last year at A2 went well for me. I got my first supercross race win, so I’m really looking forward to this weekend. I think if I can just ride like myself and relax, I can for sure do some damage.”

Displaying excellent speed and determination at Snapdragon Stadium last Saturday, Kitchen laments what might have been if not for the small Main Event miscue.

“For sure I was bummed about San Diego,” he said. “Yeah, Round 3 was very frustrating for me when I was done, but at the same time, things could be worse. I could be off the pace and wondering how to be on pace. So I think if anybody goes back and watches the race and looks at times, I definitely had the speed to win and I felt like I could catch people whenever I needed to. It was just hard to execute a pass there and that’s kind of what hurt me. I was getting a little bit impatient behind R.J. [Hampshire] and I should have waited for a mistake from him. But I forced it and it cost me.”

Kitchen let it be known during the off-season that he had left the Star Racing Yamaha organisation after the 2023 racing season to move over to Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki in an effort to gain more freedom and to, well, make a needed change.

“Yes, there’s always questions about whether you made the right move,” explained Kitchen of moving from Yamaha after a two-year run with the brand. “I think there’s always going to be pros and cons to anything you do in life, so for me I was truly surprised at how easy the transition was though. I started stressing because Chase Sexton – and I train with him now – he takes a pretty long off-season after racing. He was going to a new team too in 2024 and said to me, ‘Trust me, man. You’ll have plenty of time on the bike. You’ll be good’.”

“I took almost over a month off and Mitch and these guys were probably like, ‘Man, what is this guy going to get back on the bike?’ And yeah, I did, and within three weeks, I was perfectly comfortable. We got everything kind of dialled in for me that I went to Florida for – three weeks and it was super easy. I really liked the bike. But going racing on it, it can go the other way. You know racing is obviously a bit different than practicing. Even in a race environment so far, it has been great. At Anaheim 1, we struggled a little bit with a couple of things on the bike, but that’s kind of common no matter what bike or team you’re on. Practice tracks are always different than the racetrack. So with the race bike, it was definitely nothing out of the ordinary. It was a really easy transition. The team environment has been amazing for me. It’s been unreal.

“And I enjoy it a lot and like you said, with the freedom-side, I can kind of change things in my program if needed,” continued Kitchen. “I think for me, being a little bit happier has helped my mindset and my confidence. I’m really confident because everything is how I want it. Obviously – and I think with any athlete, especially at the top level – we all deal with being a little bit selfish at times, but it’s kind of the way we have to be in our mindset.”

And according to Kitchen, thus far inside the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki outfit, it has been a reality of so far, so good.

“Yeah, I am really loving it so far,” he nodded with a smile. “You know people can say Mitch can be hard on you or whatever. I don’t know… Coming from Star Yamaha, Bobby Regan was pretty old-school, and he can be pretty tough on you too. It wasn’t shocking or anything and so far, for me, Mitch is not really that hard on me at all. He’s just honest and tells the truth with everything. Everything Mitch says makes sense to me, so I don’t blame him for ever saying anything to me. You know, that was one thing that when Mitch let me go to Florida, he was just like, ‘Levi, don’t give me a reason to take you away from Florida’.And I knew. I want to win just as bad as Mitch wants to win. I might want to win even more!”

Having won the second Anaheim Supercross round in 2023, Kitchen is fully focused on winning at Angel Stadium when he walks inside the paddock come Saturday morning race day.

“It’s time to win,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’d like to put three 1s up on the board and get the Overall on Saturday and then go right into Glendale. Obviously the goal is to win, but podiums are great, for sure. I think after that fifth place this last weekend in San Diego, I kind of planned the whole season in my head and that fifth place now needs to be bad race. I need to get it back together. You know, it’s always been competitive, but I feel like it’s definitely getting more and competitive because I think the playing field is getting a little more even as everybody does similar programs. That’s why I kind of wanted to step away and do my own thing because I didn’t want to do the same thing as everybody else. I wanted to try and get the upper hand.”

Before Kitchen packed everything up and began looking towards this Saturday’s Anaheim 2 – and what we all hope will be a sunny Saturday – we talked about what growing up with Washougal MX Park was like.

“Yeah, it’s always been a part of my life. It got to the point when I was a teenager where I loved this sport, but I purely liked it just to have fun with it. Winning wasn’t everything at that stage in my life. Once I chose to do it more seriously and train on the weekends and stuff, that changed everything for me because when I started putting the work in, I didn’t want that to be for nothing. Then the mindset kind of changed to, ‘I need to win. I want to win!’ You know, it’s awesome to do this, for sure. There are times when it’s a job. But now, and especially this year, it feels less of a job for me. I’m enjoying it more and I think the happier I am on race day, you’re going see better results from me. And I think that’s showing now.”

POSTSCRIPT: ROUND 4 UPDATE…

Last Saturday night, just a few days after this interview was penned by Eric Johnson, Kitchen went 1-2-3 at Anaheim 2’s Triple Header format and took Round 4’s Overall win. He now shares the points lead as the 250SX West Region takes a break and the championship heads to Detroit next weekend.

“Today at Anaheim 2 was a good all-around day,” Kitchen explained in the wake of his win at A2. “Qualifying went well, securing second Overall. In the first Main Event, I got the win after asking for it early on. In the second one, I finished second, which is solid, and I felt like I had the speed throughout the night. The third one began with a good start, but I made a slight mistake. However, I got behind Nate Thrasher, maintained focus, and realised I had a substantial points gap. From there, I rode it in smoothly. It was an overall great night, and having the red plate is cool for me. I can’t thank my Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki team enough. My KX250 was great all day!”

250SX CLASS WESTERN REGION – POINTS (AFTER RD4)

  1. Levi Kitchen (Kawasaki), 84pts
  2. Jordon Smith (Yamaha), 84pts
  3. RJ Hampshire (Husqvarna), 76pts
  4. Garrett Marchbanks (Yamaha), 70pts
  5. Anthony Bourdon (Suzuki), 55pts
  6. Jo Shimoda (Honda), 54pts
  7. Mitchell Oldenburg (Honda), 51pts
  8. Nate Thrasher (Yamaha), 50pts
  9. Julien Beaumer (KTM), 48pts
  10. Carson Mumford (Honda), 47pts

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